“The Trial Of A Time Lord, Part 4: The Ultimate Foe” (Season 23, episodes 13-14. Originally broadcast Nov. 29-Dec. 6, 1986.)
This is the way the Sixth Doctor era ends: Not with a bang, but a whimper. Offscreen, the show loses the script editor who was, for better or worse, the driving force behind the grim, violent, and often misanthropic vision of mid-1980s Doctor Who, and it would very soon lose Six’s actor, Colin Baker, who was fired after season 23 was over. Onscreen, the 14-episode “Trial Of A Time Lord” arc limps past the finish line with the final segment, “The Ultimate Foe.”
It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that after a dozen episodes of mediocre buildup, the final two half-hours wrap up the story in a less than satisfying way. But given the behind-the-scenes chaos that plagued this season and particularly the making of these last two episodes, it’s a victory that they were finished at all. Even in the best of circumstances, an ambitious idea like a season-long story would have been challenging to pull off, and Doctor Who was decidedly not in the best of circumstances at the time. The show’s production team was already embattled going into season 23, having just weathered an 18-month hiatus that was one step away from being cancelled outright, and their bosses at the BBC made their continued coolness toward the series quite clear.
In response, producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward devised the “Trial” concept as a way to answer the question of whether Doctor Who deserved a future by forcing the Doctor to fight for his own future in a courtroom against an implacably hostile prosecutor, a Time Lord called the Valeyard, in a multi-part story that mixed his past, present and future and collectively formed the longest serial the show had ever attempted. A bold move, perhaps, but in the final analysis taking on such a big project just proved that skepticism about the series was well-founded. Each of the three segments leading up to “The Ultimate Foe” had serious problems on their own terms (which I’ve already written about here, here, and here, so I’ll try not to belabor the point). But heading into the final stretch, it’s clear that nobody gave enough thought to the much-more-important overarching courtroom plot—neither in how the three “evidence” storylines were relevant to it, nor in how to make a compelling story out of the trial itself. Not only are the courtroom scenes dreadfully static and dull, but there is little sense that they’re progressing anywhere in particular. Though the Doctor repeatedly suggests that something is fishy with the evidence being drawn from the Time Lords’ supposedly unimpeachable databank, the Matrix, the obvious next step of showing him actually trying to investigate the problem never happens. This, even though the idea that the Matrix has been tampered with is basically a steal from the Fourth Doctor serial “The Deadly Assassin,” during which the Doctor proved his suspicions with some extra investigation that’s apparently impossible here.
And the Valeyard, despite being the season’s main antagonist, remains for 12 episodes a one-note, undeveloped character who does nothing but hector the Doctor with repeated and increasingly tiresome complaints. There’s no hint of what he’s really up to, or who he really is, and so the sudden suprise-twist revelation of his true identity early in “The Ultimate Foe” seems to come out of left field. Which is a shame, because the idea that he is really a future version of the Doctor himself is a potentially fascinating one that deserved to be explored in greater depth. That’s the problem with a lot of big surprise twists: The twist often is the story, and keeping it secret means you can’t tell that story the way it needs telling. The idea of a Doctor who has become so afraid of dying that he sabotages his own past to keep himself alive could have made a great story, especially if it explored how his fear so twisted him that he became his own opposite, not merely evil but also someone whose power rested on his ability to use rules and laws to get what he wants—diametrically opposed to any of the Doctors we had met up to this point, all of whom were iconoclasts and forces of chaos more than anything else. Spinning that tale well meant, at the very least, dropping some hints about it earlier than episode 13 of 14.
Of course, there was an unavoidable reason why “The Ultimate Foe” failed to follow through on exploring the implications of its shocking twists—not just that the Valeyard was the Doctor, but that Ravolox from “The Mysterious Planet” was really Earth, moved across several light-years and disguised in order to cover up corruption in high Time Lord circles. Namely, that the scriptwriter who was going to do it, Robert Holmes, died after writing episode 13 but before finishing the final one, which set off a cascade of following disasters. The strained relationship between Nathan-Turner and Saward devolved into total, acrimonious meltdown over a disagreement about Holmes’ original ending, and Saward quit. For legal reasons, that ending had to be scrapped, and Nathan-Turner had to bring on new writers to finish the last episode but could tell them nothing about what was supposed to have happened. And the writers he chose were Pip and Jane Baker of “Terror Of The Vervoids,” whose scripts had the virtue of coming in on time but were condescendingly simplistic, pedantic and aimed at an audience of children they seemed to think were kind of dumb—and hugely at variance with the intelligent but deeply cynical approach characteristic of Holmes. All this ensured that “The Ultimate Foe” was essentially doomed to be a confused, sloppy mishmash.
The basics of Holmes’ original ending are known—the Doctor and the Valeyard wind up locked in a never-ending death struggle in a “time vent,” which I’d guess was inspired by the Star Trek episode “The Alternative Factor.” But because of the behind-the-scenes breakdown catalyzed by Holmes’ death, none of his ideas are developed beyond hints and possibilities. And it’s impossible to know whether he would have been able to make it work anyway, given his poor health.
But what Holmes gives us in his episode of “The Ultimate Foe” is certainly intriguing. By Doctor Who’s 23rd season we’d seen any number of Gallifreyan renegades and criminals, particularly the Doctor himself but also mischief-sowers like the Monk and the Master, who shows up here to save the life of his longtime enemy because he can’t stand the idea that anybody else should kill him. But the Valeyard and his bureaucratic sidekick Mr. Popplewick are a kind of Time Lord renegade we’d never seen before—not forces of chaos but of stifling order.
They’re the polar opposite of the Doctor, whose ability to help defeat bad guys on his travels through the universe largely flows from the disruptive effect he has when he lands the TARDIS in the middle of a crisis. In “The Caves Of Androzani,” for example, he arrives in the middle of a deadly stalemate between two opposing power blocs that has been dragging on for years, and unbalances things just enough that the whole corrupt structure finally collapses, as it should have long ago. This pattern repeats itself over and over throughout the series, down to the final moment when he gets in the TARDIS and flies away to the next adventure, leaving behind all the the hard work of cleanup for other people. Reconstruction is not his job. He’s a spoiler. He’s not a builder or a maintainer, he’s a force of destruction who happens to be mostly on the side of the angels. And perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the Doctor’s chaotic nature is that he has had so many faces, so many personalities, over the years.
The Valeyard, on the other hand, is explicitly a creature of rules and laws, and even more so is Mr. Popplewick (whose name and general air of oppressive, overbearing Victorian bureaucracy are among several Dickensian touches throughout the story). Perhaps the most effective moment of “The Ultimate Foe” is the surreal scene when the Doctor shoves his way past Popplewick to force a meeting with the Valeyard, only to find another Popplewick at an identical desk in an identical room staring back at him. This new Popplewick calls the first one “the very junior Mr. Popplewick,” and it’s implied that there are many copies of Popplewick, all collectively forming the bureacratic backbone of the Matrix. It’s not how we’ve seen the Time Lords handle their near-immortality before, with regenerations always resulting in a new body. But it makes perfect sense—if the Doctor is chaotic and ever-changing, why should there not be a rulebound Time Lord who values procedure above everything else, who regenerates into the same form every time, and whose separate selves organize themselves into a rigid hierarchy?
It’s maybe too much to hope that if Holmes had lived, “The Ultimate Foe” would have been as solid a swan song for the Sixth Doctor as Holmes gave the Fifth in “Caves Of Androzani.” There, Holmes found a way to tell a story that didn’t shrink from that Doctor’s weaknesses—good-hearted but often ineffectual and overmatched by the viciousness of his enemies—and showed how to make good Doctor Who with such a flawed Doctor.
But the Sixth Doctor’s flaws, by design, were always both more flamboyant and more deeply corrosive to the central concept of the character. It was always going to be a more difficult job to make him work. It was perhaps superfluous to requirements to make the Valeyard a sort of anti-Doctor, because that was what Six was supposed to be too—arrogant but incompetent, and in his early appearances especially, in “The Twin DIlemma” and “Vengeance On Varos,” he was a danger to himself and his companions in a way that was deliberately and calculatedly meant to shock. But the problem with the the Sixth Doctor era is not that they had a bad Doctor, but that they never followed through on the idea of having a bad Doctor. What would it mean that he’d lost his way? Why had he had this breakdown, and how would he grow past it and find his best self again? The only justification for making this brash, tasteless version of the Doctor the show’s central character was to make him deal with those problems head-on. That never happened, and to me, that makes the entire experiment a pointless drag.
About Pip and Jane Baker’s episode 14, I don’t know that there’s much to say other than the story takes a sudden, wrenching turn toward the shallow dumbness of a Scooby Doo episode, complete with the villain hiding behind a rubber mask for no particular reason. It’s full of plot holes and silly concepts executed clumsily: Why did the Valeyard bother to take the alias of J.J. Chambers? Who led the revolt against the High Council, and why wasn’t that a bigger part of the storyline? What does the Valeyard’s line “there’s nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality” even mean? But in the end, it doesn’t matter. The trial is over, and though the Doctor is found innocent, the show itself was proven guilty of a drastic need for change. And the next season, with the advent of Sylvester McCoy and Andrew Cartmel, would find Doctor Who regenerating itself anew once more. And not a moment too soon.
• It’s worth noting that Colin Baker gets to sink his teeth into one really solid monologue as the Doctor, in high dudgeon, rails against the hypocrisy of Gallifrey’s powers-that-be: “In all my travellings throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Ha! Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, they’re still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power, that’s what it takes to be really corrupt.”
• Upcoming schedule:
• Thanks for your patience as I took some time away from Doctor Who Classic coverage over the last few weeks. Going forward, some more schedule changes: Instead of biweekly, I’ll be writing about the show on a monthly basis instead, publishing at 2 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month. In July, we’ll start covering the Fourth Doctor’s season-long “Key To Time” arc, in order, with stories from other seasons interspersed inbetween. I’ve already covered the first Key serial, “The Ribos Operation,” so we’ll start with “The Pirate Planet.” Then in August: The early Seventh Doctor serial “Paradise Towers,” arguably the first sign that the show had found its way again after the “Trial” debacle.